A starless dark sky still draped the world as I walked down the quiet suburban street. The way was lit by sparse, flickering street lamps and the full moon illuminating my back. I was still rubbing the sleep from my eyes just as other rugged-up people walked along the path in front of me and behind, yawning and whispering to one another about the cold morning like only early birds could.
But we were all early birds today on one of our nation’s most hallowed days.
Women led their children; men pushed the wheelchairs of their elders; couples drifted forward, hands clasped together. A quiet procession grew from the dark as more people from side streets joined the silent march. Before us was our town’s Memorial Park, the stone cross standing illuminated at its centre. Many were already gathered on the grass, still just as silent as those still coming up the street.
I crossed the road and into the park, beginning to hear a band rendition of “Waltzing Matilda” playing from the loudspeakers in the gumtrees. The whole town surrounded me, standing solemn and reverent. The local schools were present, as were the nurses of the bush hospital. The town’s police and firemen were there, whispering quietly to one another. The veterans and the widows were seated at the front with the local State and Federal Members’ representatives. Servicemen stood around the monument while the RSL shuffled about the podium making the final arrangements for the service.
The preamble and the dedication began as the drums and trumpets faded from the gumtrees. The speakers and representatives were introduced, along with the story of the landing at Gallipoli 101 years ago. The recitation of “In Flanders Fields” was read by student captains from the local primary school, with the calling of the Role of Honour for the First World War through to the Gulf War to the tune of bagpipes following them. The wreaths were then laid by all who had them – the veterans, the nurses, the widows, and the schools. The President of the local branch RSL recited the Ode and the Lord’s Prayer before the bugler played the Last Post.
Then came the Minute’s Silence, so quiet you could hear a pin drop - not even the small children, whom the meaning of ANZAC Day is lost on, made a sound. In that moment I reflected on Australia’s war dead and our involvement in foreign conflicts, just like the hundreds gathered around the park at the crack of dawn were surely reflecting also. The murmur of “Lest we forget” rippled across the crowd like a wave, ushering in the dawn and the Reveille. We sang the anthem before the final acknowledgements were read and we all made to file past the memorial to lay wreaths and poppies, pay our respects, and contemplate the losses of the town and the nation.
The sun now poked over the horizon, and the blanketing dark sky had turned to a soft baby blue as I walked among the crowd into town for breakfast. Sitting at the bench of a local cafe, I contemplated the importance of ANZAC Day not just as an opportunity to remember and mourn Australia’s and New Zealand’s war dead, but also its cultural and communal value. There are few days in the year when people from all walks of life can gather with a common purpose – when else can the whole community come together with such respect and emotion but to honour our spilt blood and the regretful affair that is war?
ANZAC Day is as much about sacrifice, mourning, and remembering as it is about communal bonding, ancestor veneration, and the reminder that blood binds a nation – whether that blood be flowing in our veins, or pooling around our fallen.
Having looked around the cafe only reinforced my thoughts on the matter – tables were filled with families talking with one another, some audibly about the importance of remembering those who die for Australia. There were long communal tables outside where large groups gathered, happily talking away about the pleasant nature of the service and how well the children did laying wreaths in front of all the people. I myself even chatted with an elderly lady about the warm reverential feeling of the morning and the importance of sharing with the youth this most important tradition.
And as I readied to leave, having finished my Eggs Benedict and black tea, thanking the kind elderly lady for our conversation I caught sight of two things – the Herald Sun on the next table, and Sunrise on the tellie above the counter. The headline for the paper told how members of the African “Apex Gang” had been arrested after a weekend of beatings and robberies while on bail. The banner on the tellie simply said that a teen had been arrested in Sydney for plotting an ANZAC Day terrorist attack.
Two sobering story headlines to remind me of the danger our people and our traditions face.
Two events I could have gone without seeing that pleasant morning.
Lest we forget.